Snack after reading

A quick look at my Instagram account will reveal one powerful, inalienable truth: I’m obsessed with food.

Whether I’m cooking it, presenting it, photographing it or, you know, eating it, food and I go way back. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways — including going up a dress size — but never has it been more obvious than when scrolling through the 500-plus snapshots I’ve shared.

And through my reading, apparently. If the plot revolves around a cooking class, a market or a bakery, I’m salivating — and reach for the paperback. I’ve recently noticed an upward trend in “foodie fiction” — stories centering on eating, baking, the restaurant life. From Melissa Senate’s The Love Goddess’ Cooking School to Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, popular characters are perfecting their culinary skills — and often falling in love in the process.

I love these plots. I’ll make no bones about it, y’all; I adore a good love story, and talking macarons and wedding cakes as well is a quick way to win me over. There’s just something warm and comforting about foodie fiction. I rejoice in mealtimes and love trying new things, I suppose, so getting to “travel” through another’s kitchen is delightful.

As long as I’m not reading on an empty stomach.

Of the books I’ve read in the foodie fiction and non-fiction categories lately, I’ve distilled my favorites into this collection. Glancing through the 2012-13 line-up, it looks like we have much to look forward to in the way of food-related reading — including Megan Caldwell’s Vanity Fare, which sounds delectable. I’ll bring my fork.

A sampling of fun foodie fiction

Life From Scratch by Melissa Ford

To plagiarize myself, Ford incorporates fresh prose and likeable characters in this Julie & Julia-esque look at one woman learning to cook following tons of personal tumult. Rachel’s adventures in the kitchen were funny and realistic, and I finished this slim book wanting another 100 pages. She would make an awesome dinner host — and everything sounded delicious.

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee

When it comes to baking, Gee’s characters might not think they have what it takes — but a shared batch of friendship bread, which becomes a yeasty chain letter, unites the characters in her small town.

“You know that cozy feeling that envelopes you when you take a bite of warm chocolate cake, homemade cookies, fresh-baked bread or apple pie? Well, Darien Gee does, too — and that’s exactly how she created Friendship Bread, one of the most heartwarming books I’ve read in a long time,” I wrote in 2011. And darn if I wasn’t totally right. This cozy read sucked me in.

The Bake-Off by Beth Kendrick

An epic sister rivalry, a baking contest, an adorable grandmother, a fantastic-sounding apple pie recipe — everything blends beautifully in Kendrick’s novel, which I read and enjoyed last year. It’s fun and frothy, sweet and fun — but with heart. And even after getting ten kinds of complicated, the baking contest sounded like a blast.

How To Eat A Cupcake by Meg Donohue

Between its San Francisco setting, drama and delicious treats, Donohue’s novel centering on two unlikely friends coming together to open a bakery drew me in — and left me with a powerful craving for sweets. Though the novel had a few “Um, what?” moments for me, it kept my interest throughout and had me wanting to do some serious late-night baking.

Have any other fun, food-related recommendations? Please share them in the comments. I’m always up for a new taste sensation.

Book review: ‘Friendship Bread’ by Darien Gee

You know that cozy feeling that envelopes you when you take a bite of warm chocolate cake, homemade cookies, fresh-baked bread or apple pie? Well, Darien Gee does, too — and that’s exactly how she created Friendship Bread, one of the most heartwarming books I’ve read in a long time.

It all starts with a note. “I hope you enjoy it,” reads Julia Evarts, a mother still lost in a tumult of grief after losing her son, Josh, five years earlier. On her front porch is a plate bearing a few slices of cake-like bread and a Ziploc bag full of an unknown gooey substance. Rather than call a Hazmat team, Julia inspects the Post-It and accompanying instructions for something called “Amish Friendship Bread,” a concept that intrigues her young daughter, Gracie. It’s Gracie’s curiosity that keeps Julia from chucking the disgusting thing in the trash — and it becomes a pet project for the two Evarts women, marking the first time Julia has taken an interest in something in years.

And thus begins the odyssey of a “starter” — the bag containing the beginnings of Amish Friendship Bread, a chain letter-like way of sharing baked goods with friends and neighbors. As Julia musters up the enthusiasm to bake her first batch of bread, the recipe (and more starters) are shared with the women of Avalon, Ill., a small riverside town outside Chicago. It doesn’t take long before she meets Hannah, a young cellist who arrives in town only to be greeted unceremoniously dumped by her husband, and the two eventually convene at Madeline’s Tea Salon, a beautiful old home that resident Madeline Davis has converted into a cafe and tea shop.

Also populating Avalon are Edie, a reporter at the local paper waiting for her big break; and Livvy, Julia’s estranged sister. Time and a well of pain have kept the women from speaking since Josh’s death, though Livvy desperately craves her big sister’s forgiveness. Or, if nothing else, absolution from guilt.

But it never seems like it will come.

Or will it?

Over the course of one novel, Darien Gee has created characters I want to befriend, console and share a kitchen with — especially if brownies are involved. For as often as my stomach rumbled while reading Friendship Bread, a novel that had me craving both hugs and dessert, I was so wrapped up in Gee’s storylines that I barely stopped to eat or drink or breathe for three days.

Okay. So, you know, I had to go to work. But when I wasn’t working or helping with Spencer’s behemoth move? I was reading this book. And crying and laughing and loving it.

I’m going to be unabashedly gushy. I absolutely loved Julia, Mark and Gracie, a small family torn apart by grief. Gee did a masterful job of conveying Julia’s pain without dragging us into a pit of despair, accurately showing how tough life has become for her without invoking our pity and annoyance. All I wanted was to reach into the book, wrap Julia in my arms and force her to make amends with Livvy, her sister — what a heartbreaker that was, too. I had faith, though, that everything would turn around . . . baked goods or no baked goods.

But I’m glad there were baked goods.

I can’t discuss Friendship Bread without, you know, acknowledging the bread in question. It sounded delicious and aggravating and crazy, but I can definitely understand the appeal — even though I’m guilty of tossing out my own bags of starter in the past. When a coworker approached me years ago with a plastic bag full of flesh-colored goop, I gave her the stink eye — but accepted it (I didn’t want to be rude). It languished on my kitchen table for a few days before I decided I wasn’t committed to the project and threw it away, but not before acknowledging my own defeat.

“Google ‘Amish Friendship Bread’ on your computer and be prepared to have enough reading for a week,” Gee writes. “It’s a slice of American contemporary history, an edible chain letter that fills people with equal amounts of hope and dread.”

And it sweeps Avalon, creating quite the buzz in town and leaving townspeople with too much starter and no one willing to take it. That’s how the women arrive at Madeline’s Tea Salon and find a sympathetic ear in Madeline, the older woman who quickly becomes everyone’s friend. I adored Madeline and her propensity for baking and caring for others, all the while wishing someone would arrive to take care of her. The salon is absolutely a place I could while away a few hours, being spoiled rotten by Madeline’s delicious food and wisdom.

I wanted to move there.

The highlight of Friendship Bread — and a hallmark of Gee’s talent — is that this novel is both big and small in scope, providing us a glimpse of the interior lives of so many characters without overwhelming us. We know how I feel about Too Many Characters-itis and, as a new person was introduced every few chapters, I started to squirm. But I can honestly say I felt invested in the lives of everyone Gee spotlights, even the Avalonians on whom we focused for just a few paragraphs. These people felt real and tangible and interesting, and I wanted to get to know them all. And I felt like I did.

Brimming with recipes, insight and a heartwarming ending, Friendship Bread was a surprise of a read that had me up late in a thunderstorm to finish. Though I know some have deemed the trope of friendship bread bring a town together “far-fetched,” I had no trouble just going with it. Sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to feel happy. And good. And this novel did just that for me.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345525345 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program